Review: Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Kotaro Isaka’s “Bullet Train” gathers together an eclectic mix of underworld assassins on board the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka, their fates entwined by the powerful crime lord Minegishi, for reasons that come to light during their 240–320 km/h journey.

The action flits persistently between the perspectives of the various contract killers on board. I won’t mention them all, because every page offers a potential landmine revelation, but here’s a taster:

There’s Nanao, the unluckiest assassin in the world, who is there to steal a suitcase full of cash. There are the two fruits — the calm, scholarly Tangerine, and his Thomas the Tank Engine-obsessed partner, Lemon — who are tasked with safeguarding both Minegishi’s son, and the suitcase. Kimura is in a nearby carriage, an ex-alcoholic (and ex-assassin) and single parent who wants revenge on the teenager who pushed his boy off a rooftop. But ‘The Prince’ isn’t going to go down without a fight. His outwardly youthful innocence masks his wicked cunning. The kid is actually the most psychopathic of the lot. 

In less assured hands the reader might not be able to see the forest through the trees, but Isaka (via his translator Sam Malissa) is remarkably adept at letting each character have a moment to make a lasting impression. And while it would be an exaggeration to suggest we form any sort of emotional connection with the cast — they are most assuredly bad people — they’re delineated beyond what you might expect, thanks to regular flashbacks and philosophical asides; not to mention countless scenes involving a character holding a gun to the head of another and gabbing.

“Bullet Train” is coated with a thick sheen of surreality, its most serious moments perforated with a whimsy that never quite turns into laugh-out-loud, but renders the violence more cartoonish than gratuitous. It’s ripe for film adaptation, a kind of “Murder on the Orient Express” directed by Tarantino.

Published: 16 March 2021
ISBN: 9781787302594
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 432
RRP: $32.99